HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD
Color, 1980, 99m.
Directed by Bruno Mattei
Starring Margit Evelyn Newton, Frank Garfield, Selan Karay, Robert O'Neil

RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR
Color, 1984, 97m.
Directed by Bruno Mattei
Starring Richard Raymond, Janina Ryann, Alex McBride, Richard Cross, Ann-Gisel Glass
Blue Underground (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), Cinekult (Italy R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)


Hell of the Living Dead

While the zombie films of Lucio Fulci were busy traumatizing audiences around the world, Bruno Mattei's insane Hell of the Living Dead Hell of the Living Deadmanaged to ride along on a wave of gory ultra-violence. Desperate to ape the success of George Romero's Dawn of the Dead (right down to cribbing its Goblin score along with a handful of the band's other cues from Contamination), this zero-budget film was titled Virus in Italy but played unrated in the U.S. as Night of the Zombies (where it confused patrons thanks to another American-grown film of the same title from Joel M. Reed) and in the U.K. as Zombie Creeping Flesh. (Apparently that Virus title clashed with the apocalyptic film of the same name by Kenji Fukasaku.) Eventually on home video it reverted to its original, least-seen English export title, Hell of the Living Dead, which has stuck ever since.

A chemical lab in New Guinea is sent into an uproar when two of the coworkers accidentally unleash a contagion, thanks to interference of a pesky rat. Rampant flesh eating madness ensues as this company, designed to provide for its third world environment, instead unleashes zombies on the jungle-dwelling populace. The International Criminal Police Organization sends a four-member team into the fray, led by the intrepid Mike London (Raymond, a.k.a. Conquest's José Gras) and featuring the manic Zantoro (Garfield, a.k.a. The Other Hell's Franco Garofalo). In between trading wisecracks, the men collide with female reporter Lia (The Last Hunter's Newton), an expert on local customs who goes undercover with the natives by painting her naked body and mingling with National Geographic-style stock footage. After fighting the zombies for an eternity, the gunmen eventually figure out that the zombies must be shot in the head, but that doesn't help much as they continue to pump bullets into the shuffling undead's chests. A lively zombie kid keeps things brewing, too, until we return once again to the chemical plant for the not-too-shocking final revelation.

Hell of the Living DeadApart from the aforementioned stock footage, Mattei throws just about everything against the wall here to see what might stock. A little mondo footage, some nudity, some city mayhem, jungle mayhem, and in the oddest bit during the climax, one character turned into a human puppet, years before Peter Jackson did the same bit with Brain Dead. The Hell of the Living Deadsurreal use of Goblin music proves once and for all that even a good score can be turned to mush in the wrong context, and the hilarious dubbing never comes close to matching the actors' lip movements. God knows what language they were all speaking considering the Spanish writers and international hodgepodge of performers, but the English voice artists decided to just goof off and cram in as many off the wall lines as they could. (It doesn't synch up in the Italian version either.)

Whatever its considerable debits as respectable cinema might be, Hell of the Living Dead is exactly the kind of bizarre entertainment designed to be discovered on home video. Anchor Bay unleashed it on DVD in 2002 with a terrific transfer for the time, a solid improvement over the muddy, grainy theatrical prints and the borderline unwatchable Vestron VHS. Also included was a nine-minute interview, "Hell Rats of the Living Dead," in which the late Mattei discusses his status as a filmmaker at the time and points out his influences and intentions. The bio by Mark Wickum covers the many odd bases of his career, which ranges from sci-fi to hardcore porn. Add to that a very long European theatrical trailer (which blows far too many highlights), some irreverent and often funny liner notes transcribing a conversation between Shatter Dead director Scooter McCrae and Fango editor Mike Gingold, and a poster/still gallery, and you've got one of the label's strongest releases from its early days.

Rats - Night of TerrorReleased on DVD on the same day back in '02 was a later Mattei film unknown to most American viewers at the time, Rats: Night of Terror. (Both Mattei films were later repurposed as a double feature in 2003, with the rights passing over directly to Blue Underground for subsequent DVD reissues.) Here we have a combination of two popular subgenres, post-apocalyptic sci-fi and animal attack films, established in the opening crawl: "In the Christian Year, 2015 [uh oh!], the insensitivity of man finally triumphs and hundreds of atomic bombs Rats - Night of Terrordevastate all five continents... Terrified by the slaughter and destruction the few survivors of the disaster seek refuge under the ground." Faster than you can say Bronx Warriors, we're introduced to our "heroes," a marauding biker gang scavenging the remains of civilization in 2230. They arrive in the desolate remains of a town and decide to camp out in an abandoned building for the night, hopefully finding sustenance in the process. However, the area turns out to be infested by thousands of mutated, flesh-hungry rats, with tough guy leader Kurt (Raymond, a.k.a. prolific stunt man and dancer Ottaviano Dell'Acqua) trying to keep them working in harmony with an arsenal of weapons to fend off the seemingly unstoppable forces of nature.

It might seem strange to use the word "lovable" for a post nuke film about man-eating rats and no sympathetic characters whatsoever, but this really is a strangely endearing goofball of a movie. The English dialogue is better handled this time (synch-wise at least) and loaded with quotable one liners, with some wholly gratuitous nudity and sex thrown in along with a wonderfully kitschy synth score by Luigi Ceccarelli (who went from this to Claude Chabrol's Quiet Days in Clichy, oddly enough). Also welcome is the presence of Geretta Geretta, the striking American actress and model who appeared in Murderock the same year and went on to horror immortality as Rosemary, the instigator of Demons. Then there's that twist ending, which manages to be utterly ludicrous and oddly creepy at the same time.

Rats - Night of TerrorSince it takes place almost entirely at night on dingy sets, Rats: Night of Terror isn't as vibrant or colorful as Living Dead but has generally fared well on DVD. The initial standalone release carried over the same Mattei interview and the international trailer, and it didn't take long for potential fans to seek it out and find another Rats - Night of Terrorgem that had been previously impossible to sit through courtesy of Vestron's impenetrably dark transfer on VHS, first under the Lightning Video banner and then through Video Treasures.

It was just a matter of time before Blue Underground would bring these two disreputable gems to the world of HD, and they were wisely paired up for a 2014 Blu-ray release that's just as wonderful and ridiculous as you might hope. The fresh 1080p transfers from the original negatives of both films look great, though obviously variables like stock footage and inadequate lighting mean this is only as good as the original source material. It's frankly impossible to imagine how these could possibly look any better, and thankfully the days of problematic, splotchy Italian-sourced HD transfers now seem to be far behind us. The DTS-HD mono tracks for both also sound great considering the source; that pilfered Goblin music is true to the source, and the canned dialogue is nice and clear. Oddly, the Italian promotional material for Hell of the Living Dead touts it with a "Dolby System" logo (which is feasible if they're just talking about the noise reduction process), while the English-language marketing (including that trailer) feature a shoddy-looking "Dolby Stereo" logo that most likely wasn't true at all. American 35mm prints were definitely mono, and Italian horror films didn't really jump Rats - Night of Terrorinto bona fide Dolby Stereo until a few years later with Phenomena and Demons (though initial European prints of Mario Bava's Shock had dabbled in multi-channel non-Dolby mixing).

The Blu-ray carries over the international trailers for both films along with the Mattei featurette and poster and still galleries, while a second international trailer for Rats and the similar but even nuttier Italian trailers for both are included as well (all in glorious HD). However, the biggest new extra and the arguable highlight of the entire disc is the new, 50-minute "Bonded by Blood," a fantastic look at the creation of both films directed by Severin Films' David Gregory (who's also seen fleetingly in the opening shots). The framing device here is Rats - Night of TerrorClaudio Fragasso, who started off as a protege of Mattei and directed the actors during both productions (with Mattei focusing more on the technical side) in addition to co-writing the screenplays (with uncredited input from his wife, Rossella Drudi, seen at his side). The fact that Fragasso and Drudi are first seen authoritatively overseeing the creation of pizza and pasta in an Italian kitchen and talking about the difference between native and Sardinian cuisine means you're definitely not in for your usual retrospective puff piece, and each minute is spent wisely with Fragasso (who later achieved immortality directing Troll 2 and Monster Dog) explaining his working relationship with Mattei, including a touching account of the director's dying moments. In addition to an eccentric surprise appearance via Skype from a very energetic Franco Garofalo (whom Fragasso says now belongs in a loony bin!), there's also solo interview material with Margit Evelyn Newton (who has aged incredibly well) about her working relationship with Mattei and Fragosso, plus a visit to De Paolis Studios (which looks about the same as when they shot Rats) where Ottaviano Dell'Acqua and Massimo Vanni pop up from the rubble to join Fragasso for a walk down memory lane. A stellar upgrade all around; if you love the outer fringes of Italian cult cinema, you definitely need this one.

Reviewed on July 30, 2014.